In Washington, team members of the NHL’s Washington Capitals are hitting the ice with underserved kids through an urban outreach program. Players from both the Capitals and the Fort Dupont Cannons reflect on the on- and off-the-rink benefits of the game.
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The National Hockey League playoffs begin this week, and for years now, the NHL's teams and players have made time during their long season to broaden the game's appeal, working with youth teams in neighborhoods not normally known as hockey hotbeds.
We recently caught up with the Fort Dupont Cannons, the oldest team in the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone urban outreach program, who are getting an assist from stars of the Washington Capitals.
NEAL HENDERSON, Founder & Head Coach, Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Program: The ice rink was the only one in Washington at the time, so with the kids in the neighborhood, I came over to the rink, and from then on, it's been known as the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Program.
My name is Neal Henderson. I'm the founder and owner. I'm the head coach there. We have been in operation since 1977. And our rink is right on a fort that was there during the Civil War.
The southeast side of the capital wasn't ever touched, because the slaves guarded that section and they fought anyone who came on that side. The black represents the slave. The gold represents the brass buttons on the uniform. And the white represents their officers. So, this is why we wear these colors.
BENTON O’NEILL, Goalie, Fort Dupont Cannons:
People think that I'm crazy for playing hockey, because it's scary when the puck comes at you.
My name is Benton O'Neill. I play goalie for the Fort Dupont Cannons, and I'm 14 years old. And when I tell them I play hockey, they're like — kind of like surprised that I'm a black kid playing hockey. And my family, they encourage to be myself, so that I wouldn't like follow the crowd.
Because it's such a rough area, it gives the children an outlet. When there's issues going on at home, they have somewhere to go.
I'm Alicia Wilson. I'm Benton's mom. I have never had an issue with him because he's always wanted to play. I'm always emphasizing to other parents of how great hockey is.
Hockey is a tool. And kids will learn anything. And if you don't have them in a positive mind, they will do something wrong.
I have very high standards. You can only have one C on your report, but you must strive for A's and B's. I have a young lady that's interested in either Harvard or Cornell to play on the ladies hockey team there.
KATHERINE BAKER, Defense, Fort Dupont Cannons:
Hockey at the collegiate level, I know it's going to be very competitive. But I also known that I'm going to do.
My name is Katherine Baker. I play for the Fort Dupont Cannons. I play defense. To my neighborhood and to myself, it's been very important; it's my safe haven. It's where I go every free moment I get, basically. I started playing hockey because a group of my friends were also playing, and I really enjoyed watching it.
I chose to play hockey because I watched it on TV, and I saw Joel Ward playing for the Caps, and I wanted to be like him.
JOEL WARD, Right Wing, Washington Capitals:
It's an inspirational spot to be at if anyone gets a chance to visit Fort Dupont.
I'm Joel Ward and I play right wing for the Washington Capitals. I have been there for a couple years now. And it's just not about hockey. It's just about life lessons and learning and a lot of discipline. And I think it's just guys like myself, it's our jobs to help promote it.
The NHL helps us quite a bit. How many kids get the opportunity to meet the greatest player in ice hockey?
ALEX OVECHKIN, Left Wing, Washington Capitals:
If you have a chance to help the kids, you have to do it.
I'm Alex Ovechkin. And I play on the Washington Capitals. If they're not going to be a hockey players, then maybe they are going to be a good businessman.
This wasn't my first time playing with Ovechkin. This was actually my second.
The first time I actually played with Ovechkin, it was very ecstatic. I wasn't quite sure how to feel. I just saw a great hockey player and me being able to skate on the ice with him. It didn't really hit me until after the fact. And then, I'm looking back on it like, wow, times have really changed, and I still look up to him.
For me, actually, it doesn't matter if it's white or black. If he is a good player, he can help the team, and he love the hockey, like, he's going to be out there.
To see that many black kids out there black kids playing hockey like that on one surface like that, I have never seen that growing up my whole life. It's no secret. If you look out, hockey's a predominantly white sport.
When I first came to D.C., I wanted to choose a number. It was a new chapter in my life. I wanted to pick a number that was kind of really meaningful. And I thought 42 was available, for the honor of Jackie Robinson. And hopefully I wear it with honor and pride and do the number some justice.
Obviously, hearing Willie's story and following him, his past, here I am today. And, obviously, if it wasn't for those guys, I would not have this opportunity.
WILLIE O’REE, Former NHL Player:
My name is Willie O'Ree. I played for the Boston Bruins in 1958, '60 and '61, and it was the media that gave me the name the Jackie Robinson of hockey. I didn't give that name to myself. I didn't realize that I had broke barriers and opened doors for other black players and players of color.
Players on the opposition would call me the N-word. But, later on, there were more black players and players of color coming up. After I retired in 1980, I felt that I had something to give back to the sport. We want to make hockey available to every boy and girl possible.
A hockey puck doesn't care who hits it, and I don't care who hits my hockey puck. As long as they want to learn to play hockey, they come to the right place.
The Fort Dupont Cannons, it's a family. I couldn't describe it any other way. With coach Neal and his team being like parents, they make sure everything is OK.
I'm their uncle. I'm their dad. I'm their big brother. And I'm someone that they can call at midnight, if necessary. I love doing it, because what happens is, that's a kid that I saved.